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Board business

A board wants you to sign on as a director, but is it the right board for you? Watch for these signals

Today, you feel it’s a board that you could maybe help. Admittedly, that wasn’t quite the way you felt after you first showed up at one of its meetings, returning to the farm totally frustrated. All the directors seemed to have been there forever. They struck you as stale and apathetic, just going through the motions, rubber-stamping everything and looking at change or new ideas as simply too much effort.

Now, you’re wondering: if you got involved, could you help you re-energize a board like that?

How do you change it into a board that’s dynamic, that gets down to work, and that attracts the diverse kind of people it needs to get things done?

It turns out your best move might be to let them know how deep your doubts run.

“Getting its house in order is something that a board can do to make sure that it is attractive, well run, has good practices for decision making and all of the things that make a board strong,” says Leanne Sprung, a rural leadership specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, who is part of a provincial team that offers board training resources to ag organizations.

“An organization that clearly knows what it wants makes it easy for someone joining to know the purpose of that organization… Organizations don’t survive if they don’t look at new interests and attract new people.”

Boards need to sell themselves

Unfortunately, a lot of boards don’t do a good job of selling themselves to potential board members, or of recruiting and engaging the people they need to keep moving forward. Making the board room an attractive place to be can be hard for some organizations, but it starts with being intentional about its purpose and creating a corporate culture that makes board members feel valued.

“The board needs to see its purpose as broader than merely regulatory compliance, and that it is making a valuable contribution to the organization,” says Abe Bergen, board chair of Southern Health-Santé Sud, a regional health authority that serves a large area of southern Manitoba and has a governing board of 12 members from different communities, age demographics and walks of life.

“It is critical when recruiting or welcoming new board members to be able to say, ‘this is what this board is about and here’s where we think you would make a valuable contribution,’” Bergen says, adding “It’s helpful to identify the diversity with which you want to formulate the board.”

On any board it’s useful to have a diversity of skills and experiences, but many boards have difficulty understanding what they need, which is why, when Sprung and her colleague Tracey Drabyk-Zirk are approached by an organization to assist with board issues, they begin with a self-assessment to identify the board’s purpose and goals.

“The board will look at what is their purpose, their vision, their shared beliefs and values, their strategic planning and what their goals are for the organization,” says Sprung. “It’s a diverse tool that provides a foundational starting point from which to set priorities.”

Identifying the mission and vision

Having a clearly defined mission and vision is certainly an important starting point for any organization, as well as identifying the skills and strengths that its board members have and those that it needs to recruit.

“Often when people are asked to serve on a board, they really don’t know what the mission or the vision of that board is,” says Drabyk-Zirk, who is also a rural leadership specialist with Manitoba Agriculture. “If that is not strongly known or hasn’t been identified, I would suggest to that board that they do a strategic planning session to determine what their mission and vision is because every activity that board or organization undertakes should serve that mission and vision.”

Once the mission is identified, the board needs to set milestones to help achieve it “When organizations can identify what their goals are and what they want to accomplish in three months, six months or a year, they can see their progress and how it fits into the overall picture,” says Drabyk-Zirk. “It provides clarity and the board doesn’t waste time on things that aren’t part of the focus for the organization.”

Another barrier for many boards is committing to an ongoing review process once they have completed a strategic planning exercise. Identified priorities and areas for continuous improvement can get lost in the regular board business unless there is a commitment to review aspects of the board’s responsibilities on a regular basis.

“We recommend reviewing the policy and procedures manual within a certain time frame, say three years, but it need not be done all at once,” says Drabyk-Zirk. “The board can take a policy a meeting and have a discussion about it. People don’t have to question what the policy is if they’ve just spent 10 minutes looking at it and having some dialogue about it. The organization’s ability to make this process manageable can carry the organization a long way in attractiveness to busy board members.”

Recruiting and keeping the right people

Certainly one of the gaps that Sprung often sees with organizations is a recruitment plan that ensures people understand if they have the skills and abilities that are needed. The first step is for the organization to have its needs clearly defined. Job descriptions for board members are a great tool to help do that. “Quite often boards do not take the time to decide what their needs are,” says Drabyk-Zirk. “If a job description is written for the need, when there is an upcoming election or call for board positions, they can look for people who fit those needs.”

By posting the board job descriptions as part of the recruitment or nomination process, people with those skills may be encouraged to apply if they understand what will be expected of them and see that they have the ability to meet those needs and be an effective board member.

Mentoring is another way to both encourage involvement on boards, and to allow new members to edge comfortably into their roles and responsibilities. Mentorship can take many forms. It can be as simple as an existing board member looking for his or her own replacement. “We know that this happens because we’ve all seen it,” says Sprung. “A board member might identify another young producer in the area, for example, who has shown some interest in some other situation and they may invite them to come onto the board, so there’s some level of mentorship there.”

Unfortunately, there can be a flip side to this because often a person will look only within their own limited network of people for a possible board replacement. That can cause those on the outside to view the board as cliquey, where you have to “know someone” or be part of a certain group to be able to get on that board.

Part of the solution could be for people to find their own mentors. “People may feel intimidated by the idea of serving on a board, but mentoring doesn’t have to be formal, it can simply be calling up someone with more experience and saying, do you have time for a coffee and a chat because I need some advice about how to approach this role,” says Drabyk-Zirk.

Ongoing professional development

Boards that are committed to ongoing professional development and training for members are also much more attractive to potential volunteers who want to achieve some degree of personal growth through their role. “Often boards are so immersed in going through the agenda and getting the meeting done that time isn’t taken for training, yet we know a 10- to 15-minute session at a meeting can open new creativity and efficiency,” says Drabyk-Zirk.

Ongoing professional development and board engagement is something that Southern Heath-Santé Sud’s governing board does very well. “It is something that we do intentionally at every board meeting and it takes a number of different shapes,” says Bergen.

Practices include regular board workshops and an opening exercise referred to as “sacred moment,” a time taken at the beginning of each meeting when board members take turns to lead a moment of reflection, which can take any form: a poem, snippet of a newspaper article, a personal experience or a short video.

“The sacred moment is a way of framing our activities for the day and it shapes our context,” says Bergen. “It provides us that ‘aha’ moment that reminds us why we are here and doing what we are doing.”

Another practice the Southern Health-Santé Sud board does is to evaluate each meeting. At the end of every meeting, each board member fills out an evaluation form, and at the next meeting a board member presents the summary of what was said and how everyone ranked the meeting.

“Initially, that can be intimidating because you’re asking yourselves, have we actually achieved what we said we wanted to achieve? But as that becomes an ongoing piece of the meeting, we continue to ensure that we’re being intentional in our agenda,” says Bergen. “We get past the insecurity or discomfort of those questions and people become both gracious and honest at the same time because we’re being self-reflective at one level individually, but also corporately.”

Bergen, who also serves on a number of other boards, says it’s increasingly being recognized that it’s important for board members to socialize together.

“With one of the other boards that I sit on, we typically meet in the afternoon, have dinner, meet until around nine o’clock, and then sit around and chat for an hour or so,” he says. “It goes way beyond the agenda of the day, but I find it really valuable and it makes a board fun to sit on.”

Being flexible

Anyone involved in agriculture is busy and there are times when it’s hard to make meetings at all, much less be patient with development or training sessions, which is why Manitoba Agriculture has also developed some brief, pre-recorded webinars about aspects of board governance and leadership that people can view when they have time. This kind of flexibility has proven especially valuable to farm women and youth leaders who volunteer to serve different organizations.

“In cases where women are doing chores, running a combine or doing different things to support the farm business, as well as the domestic and parenting role, the feedback we have received is that it’s given them the flexibility to learn more at a time they could accommodate,” says Drabyk-Zirk.

However a board chooses to structure its ongoing development and training, it takes strong leadership to maintain it. “It takes commitment by the leadership of the board. The chairperson needs to push it, and be committed to it,” says Sprung. “It’s about mindset and changing the culture of the organization.”

Sometimes organizations simply have to make meetings work for the people around the table, even if that means working around different cycles and schedules.

“People may have different community commitments and their stage of family might be different. Maybe one time the board had a beef producer that’s involved with calving in early January or February months and the next time will have a grain producer whose peak season runs from spring to fall,” says Drabyk-Zirk. “Our assessment helped to get some of those conversations started so they could figure out how they can create a way to ensure board members can serve effectively.”

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Angela Lovell

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